The Design Leadership Radar — Part 1

The Design Leadership Imperative

The case for developing Design Leadership

Jason Gieng
3 min readMar 1, 2021

NB This article is the first part (1) of a six (6) part series where we explore the multi-directional, non-linear nature of Design Leadership in complex organisations. I intend to release this content as regular articles over the coming weeks.

It’s 2021, and Design has continued to demonstrate its ability to help create sustainable competitive advantages and superior market performance for organisations (Muenjohn 2013). Organisations that display higher levels design maturity have proven to exhibit greater performance in key measures such as competitiveness, market share, sales and employment (Westcott, et. al. 2013), and higher revenue growth and total return to shareholders when compared with their counterparts (McKinsey & Company 2018).

So why are some companies investing in Design struggling, while others excel and succeed?

As the value of Design continues to be understood and recognised in business contexts, we have seen a growing number of organisations adopt, support and invest in their Design functions. These design functions continue to mature, moving from acting as a producer, where the focus is placed on the visible and tangible outputs of design, through to being a visionary function that helps to define organisational strategy and solve increasingly complex customer and business needs in different sectors.

However, there is still an overwhelming percentage of organisations that have not effectively activated their Design capabilities to capture this return on investment (Buley 2019). While we have toted the business value of design, fought tooth-and-nail for a seat at the table, and have begun the move from making things look pretty to extend into the board room, we still continue to struggle in connecting-to and delivering measurable business value in many scenarios. In order to fully capitalise on this opportunity for design, expectations of Design leadership must also change to support the continued maturity of Design.

The case for developing Design Leadership

Design leadership, which can been defined as ‘to lead design, and to lead business by design’ (Design Management Institute, 2006) has been identified as the key catalyst for businesses which aim increase their design maturity and capture the full business value of Design (McKinsey 2020). An organisation’s ability to find success in current and future markets depends heavily upon their leaderships ability to activate effective design capabilities (Gloppen 2009; Muenjohn 2013), and so if organisations are to mature in their Design practices, the acts of leadership that support those Design functions must develop to be able to enable this.

While the current dominant models used to describe design maturity, such as the Design Ladder (Danish Design Centre, 2001), The Business Value of Design report (McKinsey, 2018), and The New Design Frontier report (Buley 2019) illustrate how design practices are adopted to create value within organisations at various levels of scale, they do not go into detail on the activities that design leadership undertakes to support organisations in their maturity journey.

Introducing the Design Leadership Radar

To build upon this collective thinking, I’ve developed the Design Leadership Radar as a framework to help designers and design leaders meet the growing changes required to support maturing design organisations by providing a holistic view of design leadership in both how to lead design, and how to lead business by design. The radar describes leadership acts across four different quadrants of focus (product, people, practice, and organisation) as layered, multi-directional, non-linear in nature, and highly dependent on context. This means that in order for designers and design leaders to be able to navigate and design for the complexities of organisations, they must be able to shift their focus, develop their capabilities in different areas, and at operate at different levels of zoom in order to design for the entire ecosystem (Polaine, 2020).

Read more

Part 2: Introducing the Design Leadership Radar

Part 3: Leading the Product of Design (coming soon)

Part 4: Leading the People who Design (coming soon)

Part 5: Leading the Practice of Design (coming soon)

Part 6: Leading Organisations through Design (coming soon)

Learn more about the framework, read the content in full, and get the toolkit to help assess your leadership practice at https://www.designleadershipradar.com

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Jason Gieng

An open letter about my thoughts, learnings and journey as a human-centred design thinker/do-er/leader. www.jason-gieng.co